New City Cemetery ‘Gag Order’
Volunteers Fear It Threatens Free Speech
By Cecily Hastings
The Historic City Cemetery is home to the 500-bush Historic Rose Garden, as well as two other major gardens. For decades it has been restored and maintained by dedicated volunteers.
Now these same volunteers are outraged at being asked to sign a new six-page agreement outlining the details of their service.
Included are restrictions on contacting “news media or posting on social media concerning any cemetery activities or City Cemetery policies and procedures without written authorization” from city officials.
The agreement also reads: “I understand that even though I may not agree with their response, I will respect and abide by their decision and directives.”
After a very public battle in 2016 over the future of the cemetery gardens, volunteers are now interpreting this restriction as a gag order.
According to a former volunteer, the city cemetery has already lost volunteers, including some that signed the agreement and cannot talk to the media.
Among those who refused to sign and is no longer volunteering is Inside Sacramento’s Garden Jabber columnist Anita Clevenger, a Historic Rose Garden volunteer curator since 2003. Clevenger has traveled the world to heritage rose conferences and public gardens to further her knowledge of heritage roses.
“The city encouraged volunteer gardening beginning in 1989 with their Adopt-a-Plot program,” Clevenger says. The rose garden was founded in 1992 with roses collected from historic sites, including some old roses growing elsewhere in the cemetery.
“One of the bones of contention with the city is that the garden is not itself historic. The garden’s name refers to the type of roses planted there. It’s been created and maintained by volunteers all of these years, with assistance from Sheriff’s Work Project crews and with infrastructure support from the city,” Clevenger says.
With 16 years and 10,000 hours of volunteer service to the cemetery and its roses, Clevenger is sad to leave her volunteer position, but grateful for the opportunity the experience gave her. “I have worked with an incredible team of volunteers and advisers to make our garden worthy of international awards.”
Word of the new volunteer guidelines quickly spread through Sacramento’s volunteer community. Volunteers at William Land Park and McKinley Park are worried that the guidelines will be applied to them too.
“It’s perhaps the clearest violation of the First Amendment right to free speech as I’ve ever encountered,” says Craig Powell, a retired attorney and leader of the Land Park Volunteer Corps, as well as Eye on Sacramento, a City Hall watchdog. “It’s also unbelievably dumb.”
In its 10th season, the Land Park corps puts 75 to 200 volunteers to work every month, raking leaves, pulling weeds, renovating planting beds and performing other garden tasks in the city’s largest park. “If city officials tried to impose such rules on the corps, I would expect that our board of directors, myself included, would resign en masse and/or initiate a lawsuit against the city for suppression of our First Amendment freedoms,” Powell says.
“Free speech is important to me,” Clevenger says. “If volunteers and others had not spoken out in 2016, we would have been forced to comply with harsh city horticultural guidelines, which would have resulted in potential harm to the plants and the removal of all structures in the Rose Garden.
“When this issue was brought to the public’s attention, local preservation experts stated that the changes were not evidence-based or required,” Clevenger adds. “In response, city staff proposed establishing a Technical Advisory Committee to develop revised horticultural guidelines. I was appointed as a member.”
The backlash has city officials and Councilmember Steve Hansen pledging to take another look at the agreement’s language. “There should be no gag orders on volunteers,” Hansen says.
Cecily Hastings can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.